Dolly Parton is a great American, but she’s big in Australia, too, and she means the world to the heroine of “Seriously Red,” a deceptively modest vehicle for Krew Boylan, who plays the lead here and also wrote the script.
What starts out as a crowd-pleaser about an awkward woman who becomes a Dolly impersonator gradually reveals itself as a fairly serious examination of how confidence can be gained through such impersonation, but only up to a point.
Boylan and her director Gracie Otto (the 2021 documentary “Under the Volcano”) truly love Parton, and “Seriously Red” is studded with Dolly quotes, both in dialogue form and in on-screen title cards. “Storms make trees take deeper roots,” quotes Boylan’s Red, a good-hearted but rather lost woman who is living in her mother’s garage and floundering at her current job in finance. Jobs never seem to last long for Red, who has never figured out just who she is or should be.
“Find out who you are, and do it on purpose,” reads a Dolly quote spelled out for us on screen, and “Seriously Red” is about that process for its main character, who loses her latest gig after getting drunk and handsy at a company party. When she is sober, Red can be prudish; at one point she actually says, “I want to be taken seriously, for swear-word’s sake,” unable to actually use a swear word herself.
One of the more curious aspects of “Seriously Red” is its evolving treatment of the character of Francis (Thomas Campbell, “Love and Monsters”), who has been a supporter of Red’s for a very long time. In a moment of desperation after losing her job, Red tells her judgmental mother that she is dating Francis, but he has all the movie signifiers of Gay Best Friend of Heroine — he helps Red try on Dolly wigs and even tries one on himself, and he has a poster up in his apartment of the campy Glynis Johns movie “The Weak and the Wicked.”
For most of this movie, Francis seems like the old-fashioned gay character who exists only to listen to the problems of his best female pal. When Red asks Francis what star he would like to be himself, he says that he would actually like to be Red, and then Francis does a spot-on impersonation of her insecure way of talking. The goalposts keep moving with this character until late in the film, when he shows up at a dinner with a female date, and suddenly we are made to realize that this on-the-surface Gay Best Friend is actually a straight best friend, who would like to be the lover of the heroine if he only had the nerve.
When Red gets up and sings a version of Dolly’s hit “9 to 5,” she doesn’t sound too much like Parton, and she seems very unhappy. But as “Seriously Red” goes on, and Red starts to do a serious Dolly impersonation at clubs, Boylan starts to sound more and more like Dolly herself when she sings, putting a little quiver into her voice. Boylan’s Red even gets breast implants to look more like her idol, a process that the movie regards very ambivalently.
Red auditions to be Dolly in a show with a very hunky Kenny Rogers impersonator (Daniel Webber, who previously played Vince Neil in the Motley Crue biopic “The Dirt”), and she gets the job and also starts an affair with him. We see something of the world of impersonators here, performers who do the only-first-name-needed divas: Marilyn, Liz, Barbra, Tina, Liza. Real-life couple Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale also make appearances as an impersonator of Elvis (Byrne) and a former impersonator of Neil Diamond (Cannavale), but they are here strictly as foils for Boylan’s Red.
The surprising thing about the lightly comic “Seriously Red” is that it winds up being serious about its subject. There comes a moment towards the end when Boylan’s Red is talking about why she impersonates Dolly and she says, “I just wanted that feeling that everyone else looks like they’re having… you know, that they’re respected.” Her voice trails off, and then Red crosses her eyes slightly, as if she feels the need to be a clown for a moment because she has just been about as vulnerable and truthful as a person can be, and that goes double for Boylan herself, who has clearly put thought into what she wants this movie to say.
The result is touching precisely because Boylan does not aggressively ask for sympathy for her character. She earns it by being fair, sensitive and honest as a performer but especially as a writer, dealing with what major artists like Dolly can mean to individuals who are looking for the courage to be their best possible self.
“Seriously Red” makes its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.